The importance of internships in a well-rounded technical education

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I am a University of Waterloo computer science student, and after five years of post-secondary education, I’m finally just about ready for graduation. With graduation comes assimilation into the real world with real responsibilities, and no one but yourself to define your next steps in life.

This, to some, is a terrifying thing. As one of my friends put it: “It’s like I’m a prisoner who was just released.” He was referring to the process of job hunting that he feared, having no experience coming out of university and a lack of directions and ideas of what field to pursue; he was completely lost.

I, on the other hand, was very fortunate. As many might be aware of, Waterloo is renowned in the tech world for its co-op program, possessing the largest co-op program for students in the world. Year after year, outstanding Waterloo CS students join and become integral parts of companies small and large. Being in this position as a student has offered me many benefits and opportunities to get my feet wet in different tech companies and roles.

My first co-op experience was at RBC Capital Markets, one of the big five banks in Canada. It was at this time I recognized the power of the co-op program; not only does it benefit students by allowing them to apply concepts learned in school to a real-life work environment, but it also lessens the weight of student loans through whatever wages may be paid.

The host companies by no means lose. On the contrary, companies are given access to a huge pool of potential talent that could be poached once students graduate. The usually short (3-4 months) co-op can also be seen as a comprehensive interview process for the host to gauge students more effectively than a conventional interview and all of this at very little risk to the company.

The university, in this case Waterloo, also wins — it creates a virtuous cycle which establishes relationships between the university and host companies, and reputation and prestige for the university (if the students are good, of course), and attracts more outstanding potential students.

At that time, I voiced my opinion on the matter in a weekly student voice column in the Toronto Metro; the full text can be found on their website.

I rounded out my co-op experience at Waterloo with Tagged (now if(we)), Microsoft, Minted, Facebook, and soon Yelp, the former three as a software engineer and the latter two in data science and product management respectively.

Now, as I prepare for graduation, I have a leg up on my non-co-op peers: two years of industry experience in different roles and prestigious companies of different sizes, a much better idea of what I want to do after graduation, and valuable connections from all these companies.

Thus, for me and many others in the co-op program, when the time comes for graduation, I won’t feel like a prisoner who was just released, but excited at the opportunities that are in front of me, ready for me to seize and allow me to embark on the next stage of my career and my life. I have the co-op program to thank for that.